Playing the Shape Game with Anthony Browne

At the museum  we are about to say goodbye to “Through the Magic Mirror” a retrospective of author/illustrator Anthony Browne. I have long been a fan of Browne’s work so this exhibition was never going to disappoint. The wonderful thing about his illustrations is that there is so much going on in them, far more than the text suggests. Browne is a great admirer of the Surrealist artists and this is evident throughout most of his work.

Last week Anthony visited the museum to conduct an Illustration Masterclass, which was part of our adult programme, and I had the pleasure of being his assistant for the day. Some  people attending had formal art training but most were enthusiastic amateurs with a love of illustration.

Anthony chatted about his early life and influences and career as a medical illustrator and greetings card artist before becoming an award winning children’s author and illustrator. He went on to explain how he works, his daily routine and where he gets his ideas from which led him to explain the Shape Game.  He thought that he and his brother, as children, were the inventors of something unique to them but, as he has had the opportunity to introduce children all over the world to this game he has come to realise it is universal.

“Children everywhere have invented their own versions of The Shape Game” says Browne “It has certainly been a very important part of my career, for I have played it in every book I have ever made.”

The rules are very simple; the first person draws an abstract shape, passes it to a second person who transforms it into something.

Browne continues “Looking back I can see that although the Shape Game is fun, it also has a serious aspect. Essentially the game is about creativity itself. Every time we draw a picture, or write a story, or compose a piece of music we are playing the Shape Game.”

Browne went on to tell us he is inspired by films, paintings, dreams and childhood memories. His book The Tunnel, is based on a childhood incident where Browne and his brother were dared to crawl into a tunnel that was part of an incredibly deep well. Transforming the shape of the memory into a picture book is all about playing the Shape Game. “Everything comes from somewhere else” says Browne, “and when we create something we are transforming our own experience….we are playing our own Shape Game”

Browne then invited the audience to play the Shape Game. The blank flip chart paper at the front was begging to be drawn on but the group became a little shy. He understood the reticence of the audience “after all” he said “drawing is not a spectator sport.” But this was not about great art it was doodling, and soon everyone was leaping up to create a shape and have it transformed into something weird and wacky.

Playing the Shape Game at Seven Stories

Children are much better at playing this game, as I’ve witnessed countless times in the exhibition where we have an area devoted to the Shape Game. Browne says “it’s an unfortunate part of growing up that we lose a great deal of contact with our visual imagination. The wonder with which we look at the world diminishes, and this inhibits both our inclination to draw (most adults give up entirely) and also our ability to draw with truly unfettered creativity.” Above and in this video clip children have fun playing the Shape Game

Playing the Shape Game turned out to be  a great limbering up exercise for the final part of the Masterclass. The group was asked by Anthony to come up with sketches for the theme “Transformation.” This is a recurring theme in Browne’s work from the stepmother in Hansel and Gretel who “transforms” into a witch, the Dad in Gorilla who “transforms” into the little girls dream of the ideal father to Piggybook, where the Dad and son quite literally transform into pigs.

From then on the group were busy working on ideas and sketches transforming the Artist’s Attic into a hive of creativity. Anthony Browne, meanwhile, looked through the portfolio’s of those who had brought them offering advice and encouragement.

My sketches

It was a fun day with everyone producing some great work and playing their very own Shape Game as their ideas evolved. I played around with an egg turning into an elf which had started as an idea from fellow blogger Face on My Egg. A Shape game all of its own.

In its simplest form it’s a fun game to play but, until meeting Anthony Browne  I had not realised that I play the Shape Game every time I put my pencil or fine liner to paper.  And its a game I will never tire of playing.